Male nudes through the female gaze
In 'When a Man Loves a Woman', photographer Molly Matalon presents an alternative to the male gaze; masculinity stripped of its decorations.
For centuries, our binary understanding of gender has been dominated by the male gaze. We’ve become so used to femininity being defined by those who have never experienced it, and masculinity then being defined in opposition, that we sometimes forget just how unrealistic this is. With this in mind, what does it mean to see have this patriarchal viewpoint turned completely on its head and for masculinity to be viewed from a woman’s perspective?
This wasn’t necessarily the intention of Molly Matalon’s new photo book When a Man Loves a Woman. Yet it goes a long way to uncover it. “It wasn’t really about putting men in women's position and flipping the script,” Molly says. “It was more about seeing and looking at them in the ways I find attractive and desirable.” Molly -- who lives in NYC and began taking photos when in high school for punk shows, food posts and her mum’s dating profiles -- has been working on the book since around 2015. It was completing work on Olive Juice, a collaborative project with fellow photographer Damian Maloney that explored the relationship between men and women, where inspiration struck. “That was the first time really I had photographed a man. I had a curiosity to photograph more of the men in my life.”
In this series, we’re brought directly into the moment. We’re sat opposite her male subject at the kitchen table; standing over them as they lounge on the sofa or lying down, looking up as they initiate foreplay. We’re on a first date. The awkward introduction, the mental search for something -- anything -- to fill the lulls in conversation, the policing of your actions and words to project the best ‘you’. This discomfort mixed with excitement is very much present in the photos. Wilting flowers, dirty socks, crumbled cake and oddly-placed, half-eaten fruit. This may be a date but these photographs are not necessarily romantic. While the subjects are a mixture of Molly’s friends, lovers and acquaintances, many are also, by her own acknowledgement, those Molly holds unrequited feelings for.
“I wanted to undo the usual ways we think about pictures of men and romantic love and lust,” she says. From the intricate wrinkles on a peach stone, further highlighted by the bitten shreds of flesh hanging off it, to every hair, mark or tattoo on the male bodies, Molly achieves this effect through ‘straight photography’, a style that stems from a lineage of iconic photographers... Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Katy Grannan and Reneke Dijkstra. “It felt natural and instinctive to photograph men this way, to see them lying down, to look at the 'imperfect' details of them, to see them in these stereotypically and historically 'feminine' ways felt right.”
In some ways, the positioning and placement of the male models is reminiscent of the female nudes painted and abstracted by famous impressionists, like Picasso and Braque -- the very style straight photography rebelled against. But unlike the works of those male artists, these pictures are less about one gender defining the other. “It’s a collaboration between the subjects and me. How do they feel comfortable? How do we manage making a picture together that accomplishes what I set out to do but also gives space for them to suggest ideas? These things are really important to my ethos and practice as well, not just looking and pointing but being present and collaborating.” As a result, Molly creates, as she put it, “an environment that is so much larger than the current scope of masculinity.” We’re presented with masculinity stripped of its decorations and placed in historically-female spaces.
If the title of the book sounds familiar, it’s because it shares its name with a 1966 song by Peter Sledge, later made famous in 1991 by Michael Bolton and often featured in weddings, slow dances and rom-coms. The song’s lyrics describe a man’s perspective of the woman he loves, skewed by his romantic feelings and inability to see how she might be hurting him. But in Molly’s photos, there are no rose-tinted glasses. “At first I set out to make erotic and sexy pictures, but I think what I ended up with is something a bit more nuanced,” she finishes with. “This is interesting to me when considering the scope of women's sexuality and desire -- it's so much more complicated to describe and define than we think.”
Photography Molly Matalon